Today, I’m pleased to interview Zoe Sandler, literary agent with ICM Partners, ahead of the First 15 Pages online critique event she’ll do with us in February. Below, Zoe shares her background, tastes, and approach to agenting.
Brooke McIntyre: Tell us about your background. How did you get into agenting?
Zoe Sandler: I moved to New York seven years ago after working in academic publishing for three years right out of college. My job search upon arriving in NYC was solely focused on editorial, as I (admittedly) knew nothing about the agent side of publishing. Then I was introduced to ICM, accepted a position in the royalties department, and the agency environment completely won me over.
After getting my bearings on the business side of ICM’s literary department, I spent the next several years apprenticing under a veteran literary agent, and since then have been building my own list of author clients, including some shared with my former boss and mentor, which was a great way to get some early momentum as a rising agent.
Brooke: What strengths do you bring to your work?
Zoe: Patience! And optimism. Working in publishing – wherein you face long timelines and lots of rejection – those two qualities are a requirement, I have found. And while I’m actually not the fastest reader, I’d like to think my astute attention to detail makes up for it. I’m also fiercely loyal (like a true Leo), so when I commit to an author, I do so with a ton of dedicated effort.
Brooke: What kinds of clients do you represent?
Zoe: In adult fiction, my taste runs dark and I represent mostly crime, suspense, and thriller authors. In adult nonfiction, my list is almost entirely female journalists, whose work focuses on the sciences, the environment, medicine, food policy, and anything to do with our connection to the natural world. I also represent books for young readers, specifically young adult and middle grade, and in those categories I gravitate more to voice-driven contemporary than I do genres like fantasy or sci-fi. My authors include Joe Ide, who writes a crime series featuring the Sherlock Holmes-esque PI known as IQ; Geraldine DeRuiter, also known as the blogger The Everywhereist; and T. Marie Vandelly, author of the forthcoming THEME MUSIC, a psychological thriller with horror elements. I’m not the best fit for lifestyle or prescription nonfiction, women’s fiction, or historical fiction.
Brooke: What kinds of clients are you looking for?
Zoe: My ideal clients share the above-mentioned qualities of staying positive and patient throughout the editorial, submission, and publication processes. I always appreciate when an author has managed and reasonable expectations. And a sense of humor (in particular an affinity for puns) goes a long way, too.
Brooke: Do you represent clients on a book-by-book basis or on a career basis?
Zoe: Both! Formally, ICM issues an agency agreement for each book we represent by an author, so in that way our representation model is on a book-by-book basis. But as far as the agent-author relationship goes, I aim for career-length partnerships with my clients. So during an initial call with a potential client, I always ask about other book ideas they have, to lay the groundwork for working together on multiple projects.
Brooke: What do you feel makes for a successful author-agent relationship?
Zoe: A mutual respect of both the author’s talent and the agent’s expertise. Candor and transparency make for fewer misunderstandings or misinterpretations, so I’m a big proponent of very open communication with my authors from the outset.
Brooke: When reading queries, do you prefer to see the pitch at the top of the query letter or a short personalization?
Zoe: Either one works! I prefer to see both the pitch and the author bio before reading the sample pages. Having as much context around the querying author and work ahead of diving into the writing is ideal.
Brooke: Tell us some of your favorite books, aside from those of your own clients.
Zoe: As an English major, I remain partial to books like Great Expectations and The Odyssey, but more recent favorites include Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. (Funnily enough, the books I read for fun don’t always bear a resemblance to those I represent.)
Brooke: And last, just for fun…Coffee or tea?
Zoe: Tea! (English-style, with milk and sugar)
Brooke: Favorite season?
Zoe: Fall! In New York specifically.
Brooke: Who inspires you?
Zoe: My boss and mentor at ICM, Esther Newberg. If I can aim to have as much passion and energy for my authors as she does after 40+ years as a literary agent, I mean, that’d be the dream.
Jessica Murray is a poet and children's writer. Her poetry collection Singing Without Melody is forthcoming from Galileo Press in spring 2022, and her poems are featured in journals such as AGNI Online, Barrow Street, The Cortland Review, Free State Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, and Memorious. A member of Inked Voices and SCBWI, by day she works in higher education, non-profit, and educational media production spaces.